If there's an outbreak anywhere in the world, it can spread anywhere else in the world.
GALVESTON, Texas -- If you've ever seen the old science-fiction movie "The Andromeda Strain," in which a team of scientists working in a high-security laboratory pool their expertise to develop a treatment for a rapidly spreading, deadly disease, maybe that'll give you some idea of what's happening in the Galveston National Laboratory.
Working in what look like pressurized white spacesuits, researchers breathing through yellow tubes pumping purified air into the suits try to discover the mysteries behind some of the most frightening medical phenomena on Earth. Nobody's feverishly running through the sanitized halls screaming about some sort of an outbreak threatening mankind's survival, but the doctors and medical students here work on what's often literally the bleeding edge of serious health crises.
"If there's an outbreak anywhere in the world, it can spread anywhere else in the world," said U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas. "And that demonstrates the critical importance of this Galveston National Lab."
UTMB Galveston officials joked that it literally took an act of Congress – a visit from a United States senator – but for the first time authorities on Thursday allowed cameras inside Galveston's high-security biocontainment lab, where scientists research some of the most frightening diseases and biological agents in the world. Inside an otherwise non-descript building on the medical school's campus, researchers are studying potential treatments and vaccines for everything from anthrax to cholera to the Ebola virus.
"We can all sleep a little easier knowing that we have dedicated scientists and hardworking Texans here trying to find new ways to protect our nation from deadly diseases and serious biological agents," said Cornyn.
The Galveston lab is the nation's only university-based facility certified for what scientists call "bio-safety level 4" research on diseases so hazardous, workers must wear those spacesuit-style outfits isolating them from danger. Much of the work deals with research into more mundane maladies, like flu outbreaks.
"My research is focusing on the emergence and spread of West Nile virus across the United States," said Brian Mann, a student working in the lab. "We specifically focused on Houston, Texas, in our lab and why the spread of West Nile virus is different between years, between outbreak situations of the virus."
But the tight security, with guards at doors secured with keypads, betrays a more disturbing reality: One of this lab's functions is researching pathogens that could be used by bioterrorists.
"This is not just a public health issue," said Cornyn. "We're talking about diseases that can be used as effective weaponized diseases that can be used by terrorists and others."
Today the laboratory is also leading research into treatments for the Ebola virus, which has recently claimed more than 1,900 lives in West Africa.
"We working on all countermeasures for Ebola," said Dr. Tom Geisbert, a UTMB Galveston expert on the Ebola virus. "So this is both vaccines and treatments.
"Ironically, on the first of March, and shortly before this outbreak really got rolling, we received a grant from the National Institutes of Health for up to $26 million," said Geisbert. "And this grant was to further develop what we think are three of the most promising treatments for Ebola."
Pharmaceutical companies haven't been especially interested in developing treatments for Ebola because outbreaks of the disease have been so uncommon there's little hope of turning a profit. Galveston National Laboratory researchers have been working with three comparatively small biotech companies developing Ebola treatments, Geisbert said.
Scientists in Galveston are also researching attacking Ebola with a combination of drugs, much as HIV patients have been treated with cocktails of treatments.
"I'd love to see a vaccine out there, so that we can prevent the disease before it becomes a problem," said Geisbert.
"Personally, I've been working on the Ebola virus for 23 years," he said. "That would make me feel great. I mean, that would be very rewarding. That's why I think everybody in this room who works at UTMB, that's why all of us are here."